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A Sound Education

Push the Right Buttons BOOK RELEASE

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Announcing the release of my new book "Push the Right Buttons: A Practical Guide to Becoming and Succeeding as an Audio Engineer and Producer." Read More...

Strange New Worlds

USS Enterpirse

The sounds of the original Star Trek show find a place in a strange new world.


All The Sounds You Never Hear

fallen tree

Think your hearing is good? That notion is destroyed when you find out about all of the other sounds you don't hear.


Acoustic Archeology

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Reimagining performances in centuries-old spaces.

Noise Reduction

Noise Pollution

Noise Pollution Solutions

The Father of Hi-Fi

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Arthur Haddy may not a household name, but his achievements are. Haddy is considered by many to be the "father of hi-fi." He may single-handedly be responsible for some of the greatest consumer audio advancements of the late 20th century: High-fidelity recordings, Stereo LPs, and Cassette Dolby noise reduction. Read More...



Hidden messages are everywhere in music, film, art, prose, and architecture. Do they manipulate us into doing things? Read More...


UFO cloud

As terrible as war is, it often brings scientific discoveries to the masses in peacetime. One such discovery from World War II is the Sound Fixing and Ranging channel, or SOFAR channel for short. It's not a TV channel, but an ocean channel. In 1944, geophysicist Maurice Ewing discovered a hidden horizontal oceanic layer about 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) deep under the ocean's surface. It's sandwiched between warm, less salty and lighter upper waters, and cooler, more salty denser lower waters. What's unique about this layer is its ability to trap sound waves and channel them over vast distances.


Is the Wax Cylinder the Next Big Thing?


If we look back over the last 140 years of sound recording, it seems that formats come and formats...come back. I've written many times in these newsletters about nearly dead technologies that seemingly get resurrected out of nowhere, such as the vinyl record, the cassette, and AM radio. The younger generations are partly responsible for breathing new life into these old formats, but most stand on their own merits. Read More...

Sound Farming


Today's farm is not at all like your grandfather's farm. It's a high-stakes business for farmers who expect high-yields. And what's driving up those yields? Technology. Since the Newcomen steam engine of the late 1700s, the agriculture industry has been progressively adopting new technology and science to feed the world. And now high-tech farming is getting even more high-tech. Farmers are using exciting new sound technologies and practices to coax more out of their crops, keep their livestock happy, and keep themselves safe. Read More...

What's New in '22!

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The year '22 ushers in an exciting new technology. Here's what has been said about it:

"The newspaper that comes through your walls."

"Anyone with common sense can readily grasp the elementary principles and begin receiving at once."

"It will become as necessary as transportation. It will be communication personalized. There will be no limit to its use."


Requiem of the Bells

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"Ding-dong, ding-dong
Ding-dong, ding-dong
Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away"

Peter Wilhousky / Mykola Leontovich

This time of year can be joyous, especially for holiday music lovers. Christmas tunes flow out of stores and TV sets, and holiday concerts fill December's weekends. But one carol, "Carol of the Bells," may be based on a centuries-old doom and gloom song.


Sick and Tired of Sound


"A hospital is no place to be sick."

Samuel Goldwyn

Getting hospitalized can be bad for your health. There's an old saying that patients can't wait to go home so they can get some rest. They're losing a lot of sleep for two reasons: the constant poking and prodding at all hours; and the overwhelming cacophony of sound.


When Old is Old Again


Buford T. Justice: Breaker, breaker for the Bandit.
Bandit: Come on back, breaker.
Buford T. Justice: Bandit I got a smokey report for you. Come on!
Bandit: Well, talk to me good buddy.
Buford T. Justice: You got trouble comin...
Bandit: Well what's your handle son, and what's your twenty?
Buford T. Justice: My handle's Smokey Bear and I'm tail-grabbin yo ass right now!

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Just when you thought CB radio was dead, the Federal Communication Commission passed a rule that might have every "Smokey and the Bandit" fan yearning for another sequel. The FCC is allowing FM transmission on CB radio!

Though not in the forefront of the American conscience anymore, Citizens Band radio has been around since 1945. Twenty-three channels (later 40) were carved out of the 11 meter shortwave band between broadcast AM radio and old-school VHF television. From the beginning, CB radios transmitted by amplitude modulation (AM), which was more economical and common than frequency-modulation (FM) in the 1940s.

At the height of its popularity in the 1970s and 80s, the CB craze was everywhere: TV, movies, music, and magazines. Millions of radios were sold and everyone seemed to have one in their home or car (including our family). Even new cars like the Pontiac Trans Am (the one the Bandit drove) could be ordered with an AM-FM-CB radio. Back then, this instant communication with people in your community was almost parallel to today's social networks, except way more civil. But after a while most folks burned out on it and left the airwaves to the truckers. Go to ten yard sales on any given Saturday and you'll find at least one dusty old CB radio for sale.

What killed CB radio? Crowded airways, boredom, static and noisy transmissions, and eventually mobile phones and the internet. Truckers, farmers, hikers, trail riders, and some businesses continued to use CBs because of the economical way to have short-range communications. Sure they have a squelch feature to block out background static, but they've always been limited in range from power restrictions and susceptible to noise from auto engines, power lines, and atmospheric interference.

In the mid 1990s the FCC opened up the UHF spectrum to create the license-free Family Radio Service Band (FRS). Initially proposed by Radio Shack, FM-transmitted FRS has a lot less noise than AM-based CB radio. But like it's sister, FRS is limited in range. Now called HT (handy-talkie), it has been widely adapted by businesses and outdoor enthusiasts.

Who still uses CB radio in the U.S.? Mostly truckers for real-time alerts about road conditions from other truckers. Large family-owned farms and ranches may still use them, as well as some businesses with simple communications needs. Some newer transceivers include superior noise reduction plus an optional SSB (single side band) mode that makes everyone sound like aliens. Like the dark web, SSB even has its own community and terminology. But curiosity seekers will probably quickly grow disillusioned while trying to find anything interesting to listen to. Some may graduate to ham radio, never admitting that they took a step up from the "Chicken Band."

So why would the FCC suddenly allow CB radios to operate in FM mode if it's unpopular? FM does have increased fidelity and reception over AM, but that's not the driving factor. Is it because the FCC is trying to lure people away from the increasingly crowded FRS band? That's probably not a factor. Is it because the public has been loudly crying for FM on the CB Band? No, most pleas have been for more power and a wider frequency band. It's most likely because one manufacturer just simply asked them to.

Cobra, a long-lived but dying manufacturer of CB radios, filed a petition with the FCC in 2017 to add FM to CB's 40-channels. President, another manufacturer of CBs, went on record in support of it. You see, Cobra and President already manufacture CB radios that transmit on the CB band with FM. Those have been sold in the United Kingdom since 1981 when the Brits created their own Citizen's Band spectrum. Its channels reside very near ours, but CB operators in the UK have had much clearer transmissions because they operate in the FM mode. Cobra, President, and other manufacturers who already supply the UK and European market will only need to slightly modify its FM circuitry to sell these as new models in the U.S.

This is where the controversy in the amateur radio community begins. The FCC apparently is allowing AM and FM users to use the same channels simultaneously. That means that AM users will only hear garbage when an FM user transmits, and vice-versa. This risks clogging the channels with unintelligible radio waves and effectively squelching millions of existing CB radios. In order to "breaker-breaker" on the channels the've been freely using since Truman was president, CB users will have to – you guessed it – buy a new radio. Radio buffs are really PO'd that the FCC ignored the power and frequency upgrades that the larger community has wanted for decades, only to have one company's petition come to fruition in just a handful of years.

What does the future hold for CB radio? I see a big race to the line between AM and FM, like a thrilling movie chase scene with a big rig built for speed and a sports car built for agility. There's only one cop that can police this situation and it's not the FCC. It's Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

Sub Sonic

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Captain of the 'Weser': What's it like down there, in a submarine?
Der Leitende: It's... quiet.”
Das Boot, 1981

Submarines need to be stealthy...and quiet. New technology like acoustic cloaking is on the horizon.




Mickey Mouse: Mr. Stokowski. Mr. Stokowski! Ha! My congratulations, sir.
Leopold Stokowski: Congratulations to you, Mickey.
Mickey Mouse: Gee, thanks. Well, so long. I'll be seein' ya!
Leopold Stokowski: Goodbye.

In 1940, before the world would be plunged into a half decade of devastating conflict, a larger-than-life cartoon creator teamed up with a wild-haired orchestra conductor and unleashed a fantastical film that would forever change the way we experience movies. The morning after the gala event at the Broadway Theater in New York City, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said, "The music comes not simply from the screen, but from everywhere; it is as if a hearer were in the midst of the music." Even with all the wondrous characters, vivid animation, and whimsical storytelling of this new film, it was the sound that stole the show.


Now Ear This


"There is no reason that function should not be beautiful. In fact beauty usually makes it more effective."


Function and beauty can coexist, especially in headphone design.


Ear Training


"I hear the train a comin', it's rolling round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when."

Johnny Cash
"Folsom Prison Blues"

A train horn can be musical, loud and annoying, or even whimsical. But above all it's a communications device.


For the Love of...


"If our condition were truly happy, we would not seek diversion from it in order to make ourselves happy."

Blaise Pascal
French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer and Catholic theologian

Are you working in a job that you love? Are you doing a skill that comes naturally to you? Can you imagine doing anything else? If you answered Yes, Yes, and...Yes, then you must be insanely happy. It could be healthy to daydream of doing something else, or even partake in different kinds of productive activities that are wildly different from your career. Studies of scientists have shown that the more varied their hobbies, activities, and other professional pursuits are, the more important and numerous their breakthroughs may be. Performing the same task over and over again becomes drudgery, no matter if you're a widget stamper in a factory or a recombinant DNA engineer in a lab. Our minds need diversion in order to focus when it's important.


Big Mac

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"Music's always been at the heart of Apple. It's deep in our DNA. We've sold Macs to musicians since the beginning of Macs."

Tim Cook

Twenty years ago this month, Apple officially launched OS X. Apple finally had a legitimate PC killer that would kick the Mac vs. Windows debate into overdrive. In 2001, many studios and video editing companies were already using Macs as the foundation for their digital production systems when OS X dropped, but it literally changed the game.


♪ ♫ Hot Pockets ♪ ♫ ™


"Simplicity makes me happy."

Alicia Keys

Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a classic gut-busting routine about Hot Pockets. After expounding on the unsophistication of eating them, he envisions the meeting with the jingle writer:

Do love that jangle.
Do you think they worked hard on that song?
"What do you got so far, Bill?"
"Uh... uh... (sings) hot pocket?"
"Thats good, thats very good.
The jingle is almost as good as your "By Mennen"

Our daily life has us ingesting "jangles" and other ear worms that have become part of our subconscious. Maybe you've heard these simple sounds over and over again:

"Liberty, Liberty, Li-berty, Liberty"
"Nationwide is on your side"
"Double-A, TOOT-TOOT, M C O"

These sounds are almost as familiar as a logo like the Facebook F, the Micheline Tire man, or the Disney mouse ears. These are all trademarked logos and visual advertising devices. Sounds can also be trademarked as well.


The President's Speech


"Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech."

Martin Farquhar Tupper

For the first century of our nation's existence, a very select few ever heard their president speak. 130 years ago, technology changed that.


Crank Up the Old Gramo-Grapho-iPhone-a-Graph


"It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new."

Tony Visconti

Which name will stick to a new technology? It's usually not the one given to it by the inventor.


It's For the Birds

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“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
Robert Lynd

Though we may seem as different as night and day, avians and humans may be more connected to each other than you think.


Recycling Audio Cycles


"I think reincarnation is possible. Hopefully, we all get recycled."

Christina Ricci

We all should recycle. A look at repurposing old audio gear into funky new uses. Plus find out the latest news from Dynamix Productions.


Messages From the Deeps

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- Lt. Werner: What's going on? Why are we diving?
- 2nd Lieutenant: Hydrophone check. At sea, even in a storm you can hear more down here than you can see up there.”

Das Boot

Everybody knows Popeye the Sailor Man, right? I worshipped that cartoon when I was a little kid. I even went around with a little spinach-packed container tucked into my waste-band and picked fights, just so I could eat the spinach before throwing punches - true story. There were many impossible feats beyond my spinach-fueled superpowers that only Popeye could do, and one of them was to yell for help while trapped under the sea. In one cartoon, Bluto (who else but that disgustipatin' brute) traps Popeye on the sea bottom with nothing but the air in his lungs. When Popeye yells for help, a large bubble comes out of his mouth, floats to the surface, and his "Help!" is then heard coming out of the water.

Funny stuff, but now there's a hint of reality in that scene. In the near future, submarines might be using sound waves to communicate through ocean waves. Intriguing, but let's first look at the history of how submarines communicate, problems they face, and why this emerging technology may be the new wave of submerged communications.

The early advancement of submarines almost parallels the advancement of radio. In fact, submarines helped advance early two-way radio communications by taking part in trials of shore-to-ship radio communications. Interesting side note: In World War One my great-uncle George Cassidy served on one of these submarines, the USS Snapper, that had conducted those early radio trials before the war. At the time of the experiments, the Snapper was commanded by Lieutenant Chester W. Nimitz (yes, that Nimitz, the WWII Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief).

Back in the early days of submarines and radio, transmitters could only manage to broadcast low frequency radio waves which required massive antennas and enormous amounts of power. Only large naval ships could accommodate the bulky compliment of radio broadcasting equipment, so submarines could "receive" only. As radio technology improved, radio frequencies got higher, shorter, and had more fidelity. The Navy soon found out that when submarines were deeper than a few hundred feet, saltwater limited transmitting and receiving these higher and smaller radio waves, so submarines stuck with the older-style VLF (Very Low Frequencies, 3 to 30,000 Hz) band for receiving only. A land-based transmitter might signal a "come to the surface" message for submarines, then use traditional radio bands for two-way communication, which can be risky if they want to remain undetected.

Later technology allowed submarines to monitor yet a lower radio band, ELF (Extremely Low Frequencies, 3 to 300 Hz), that penetrated the water even deeper, and from farther away. ELF radio waves can easily travel the globe, either by direct wave or by skipping off the upper atmosphere. The problem with ELF is the real estate and power needed to send such a signal. Any radio wave lower than 30,000 Hz has a ginormous wavelength of 10 kilometers or larger. During World War Two, the Nazis built the Goliath Antenna network in northwestern Germany that could signal any U-boat 20 meters deep, no matter where they were in the world. The system used three 688-foot antennas (half as tall as the Empire State Building) and more than 200 miles of cable (the distance from Lexington to Nashville). The transmitter sucked up 1,000 Kilowatts (the same power that 500 modern households use). After the war, the Soviets dismantled Goliath and installed it near Moscow. The U.S., Britain, and other naval powers had or are still using similar technology. China, which has the world's largest submarine fleet (at last count 111 subs vs 67 American subs) has a New York City-sized ELF transmitter that also triples as a deep earth ore locator for mining, and as an earthquake warning system.

But this technology is very limited for raw communications. VLF has a digital transmission speed of about 200 bits per second (bps) and ELF about 2 bps. For comparison, old-style dial-up internet was about 28,800 bps. That's just barely fast enough for Popeye to Morse-code "SOS." Always looking for an edge, the military developed a type of laser communications in the 1980s. The submarine would direct a weak optical laser beam containing data upwards through the water to an overhead aircraft. Recent experiments show even more promise using adapted fiber technology called Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) that allows subs to be even deeper and stealthier, transmit to satellite, and have full quantum-level encryption at no loss of data speed. Another interesting program has placed underwater modems operating in the 900 to 60,000 Hz band for relaying data between ships and headquarters, though saltwater limits these to a range of 17 miles.

The next submarine technology that will make a big splash is: TARF!!! Or more mundanely: Translational Acoustic-RF Communication. When an acoustic signal is generated under water, it travels as a pressure wave. In fact, sound travels more efficiently in liquids than it does in air, simply because the molecules are closer together and bump into each other more easily. Comparing sound waves moving in water to those in air is kind of like a big crowd at a ballgame doing the wave, versus the same people trying it while social-distancing a hundred feet apart - awkward and inefficient. Anyway, this acoustic wave travels to the surface where the water meets air. At that water-air boundary, tiny displacements occur. These are essentially very tiny ripples that are smaller than typical ocean waves.

These small vibrations or ripples are then detected by very sensitive airborne radar that scans the surface of the water. So far, experiments have been successful with waves as high as 6 1/2 inches and 100,000 times larger than the acoustical ripples. The 400 bps data rate is pretty slow, but a lot faster than current VLF and ELF. Will this be the next big thing for the Navy? It's still in the experimental stage right now, so I defer to the wise old salty sailor Popeye for his opinion. He would probably say, “Leave us not jump to seclusions.” Well blow me down!

I Like That Old Time Rock 'n' Scroll

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"Call me a relic, call me what you will
Say I'm old-fashioned, say I'm over the hill
Today' music ain't got the same soul
I like that old time rock 'n' roll."

Bob Seger

Digital media is doomed to disappear at some point. Records may outlast hard drives, CDs, tapes, and other formats we haven't dreamt up yet. But what about stone tablets? I take a look at some of the oldest surviving forms of written music. You might be surprised what some of them contain.


Finch's FAX

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"I got a chain letter by fax. It's very simple. You just fax a dollar bill to everybody on the list."

Steven Wright

William G.H. Finch had a crazy idea. He liked efficiency, and he liked news. He imagined a future that would merge those together for the average American. Americans like Joe and Jane. When they woke up in the morning, this crazy idea goes, a box in their parlor had just printed out the latest news onto paper with stories and pictures, ready to be poured over while eating their breakfast. Wait – that kinda sounds like the here and now. What's crazy is that this brainchild was born in 1933. William Finch saw a gap in the way Joe and Jane got their news. Newspapers, once the dominant source of news just a dozen years before, were relatively slow getting stories out compared to radio. Radio was instantaneous, but didn't have pictures like the newspapers. So he combined the two into a "radio facsimile" machine, or as they called it in the press, "radio printing."

Overnight, while Joe snored and Jane tossed and turned, radio stations transmitted data over their airwaves that sounded a lot like a fax machine does over a telephone line. A radio receiver was attached to a printer with a stylus that etched words, graphs, maps, comics, and pictures onto a roll of paper. These radiofax machines were small enough, light enough, and somewhat cheap enough to live in a family home. At least that was the plan.

The idea of printing electronic signals onto paper is not a new one. That endeavor goes all the way back to the 1840s with the telegraph etching a dot or dash onto paper. Crude pictures were being transmitted over wires in the 1890s. The first radio facsimile was patented in 1905 and was soon being used to transmit weather maps to ships at sea. By the early 1920s news services and amateur radio operators were transmitting pictures. In 1926 RCA was sending and receiving radio facsimiles between New York, London, San Fancisco, Berlin, and Buenos Aires by shortwave. Moving pictures, or television as we know it now, began to be developed in the 1920s as well. So maybe Finch's idea wasn't so crazy after all.

In the early 1930s, papers and radio stations were getting their news from such services as Transradio News Service that employed the teleprinter (similar to a teletype) and shortwave. Because phone lines were very expensive to lease during these days, news services were pushing the fairly new and rapidly advancing radio technology to the edge. Finch was part of this push while he worked for the International News Service. While he was building the first teletype service between New York, Chicago, and Havanna for INS, he was also experimenting with facsimile machines. He even invented a "talking newspaper" that printed a sound track on newsprint (like a movie's optical print) that played back as audio on a device in one's home. His patents would eventually number in the hundreds.

Finch quit the INS in 1935 and formed his own company, Finch Telecommunications Laboratories. He saw how large and complicated, not to mention costly, the facsimiles from big companies like RCA were. While they were commercially oriented, Finch was aiming at consumers. He focused on downsizing the technology while making it affordable and easy to operate.

The Finch radiofax

When Finch introduced his first model, it cost $125, about the same as a top-of-the-line iMac would today. Not an easy purchase for a family in the middle of a depression, but Finch was able to convince radio stations to buy the receivers in bulk for the earliest experiments in 1937. Finch hoped that positive press from the experiments and demonstrations like those during the 1938 NAB Conference would create demand.

RCA sure noticed and scrambled to produce a consumer version of their machines. They spearheaded the first regular transmissions of newspaper by radio by 1939 in St. Louis. RCA's receivers were double the size and price of Finch's but printed standard-sized newspaper font. General Electric and Western Electric also took notice and started development of their own versions. By the end of that year, nine stations in the U.S. would be regularly broadcasting radiofaxes. The new technology would receive even more attention at the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Then the king of affordable radio, appliances, and cars got in on the act. Powel Crosley, Jr. owned "The Nation's Station," WLW, and built radios to listen to his Cincinnati Reds on (if you weren't driving there in a Crosley automobile), so naturally he was interested in capitalizing on another crossover technology. Crosley licensed the technology from Finch and figured out how to make it even more affordable at $80 each. He called his radiofax the Reado. It was marketed as "Radio for the Eyes as well as the Ears."

A Reado printout

The momentum seemed to be building as more newspapers and radio stations began "radio printing" the news. A 1940 ad for the Crosley Reado, giddily predicts:

The art of transmitting pictures and other printed material by radio will advance. Nothing shall hamper its growth. Pictures of world events, cartoons, comic strips, news flashes weather maps, market reports, everything of a visual nature will soon be coming over the air. It is not anticipated that facsimile will directly compete with the newspapers. It will unquestionably be and continue to be a source of flash news rather than detailed mass printed material which can only be supplied by the newspapers and periodicals. Facsimile does not directly compete with sound broadcasting. On a separate channel, it will unquestionably be available as an augmenting service, providing a visual record of material other than music and sound being produced for your perusal whether you are present or absent.

But with all the hype, there were too many forces working against Finch, Crosley, and RCA. The first was that the Finch and RCA models were incompatible – exactly like the VHS/Betamax war several decades later. The AM radio signal had to be nearly perfect or else whole pages of content would not print, and those that did took too long. FM radio was gaining ground, and television was capturing the public's imagination. And last but not least, the country was still in a depression. By the end of 1940, only three facsimile stations were still transmitting. After World War Two, Finch and others tried reviving and improving the technology, even getting part of the new FM broadcast band reserved for facsimile transmissions for a short time. But television was on a fast track to America's hearts and wallets.

William Finch continued to develop facsimile technology after the war, envisioning news and information being delivered directly to consumers over standard telephone lines. He invented a color fax device. But none of these ideas took hold and his company went bankrupt in 1952. To add insult to injury, RCA took over many of its patents. William G.H. Finch died in 1990 at the ripe old age of 93, still working on inventions. His relentless push to improve and miniaturize facsimile technology led to what we now know as the FAX machine.

Today, radiofax is still alive. NOAA and other international weather services still supply weather charts via shortwave radio to sailors. Typically broadcast daily on four frequencies, a ship out of satellite or internet range can tune a portable shortwave radio to a given frequency, send the earphone output to a computer's audio input (or a purpose-built marine fax machine), and receive weather charts and other vital navigation information. It's amazing to think that a sailor's safety today can be credited to William Finch's crazy idea nearly 90 years ago.

Piracy on the Hi-Res

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“There comes a time in a man's life when he hears the call of the sea. If the man has a brain in his head, he will hang up the phone immediately.”
Dave Barry

Something people have been overpaying for since forever are music knockoffs. In the 1800s hucksters would blatantly rip-off sheet music; early records were either re-recorded or re-pressed from originals; and illegally replicated compact discs filled up warehouses for decades. Savvy consumers usually know fake from fact, but in this digital only world, it's getting harder to tell. But help is on the way.


The Soundtrack of the Prohibition

WC Fields

"Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water."
W. C. Fields

100 years ago, a restrictive law popularized a new American art form. PLUS, find out what's been going on in the studios of Dynamix Productions.


Animal In-Sync

Dancing Cat

"I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man
who could ask for anything more?"

George and Ira Gershwin

Do animals have rhythm? I found myself wondering that as I watched my cat's tail thump. Because of some slight annoyance only a cat would have, Onslow thumped his tail rhythmically several times, then slowly stopped after about a minute. In fact, he did what we call in music, a retard. That is, his tempo slowed down in a methodical manner, each successive tap mathematically slower than the previous. I actually tapped my finger nearly in time with his tail as it came to a stop. So was he singing Brahms' Lullaby in his head, or was he just becoming less annoyed?

Researchers have been wondering for a long time if animals understand music. Specifically – can animals follow a beat? Charles Darwin, while writing about the evolution of music, postulated that music tapped deep into the roots of evolution and was spread across the animal kingdom. After all, frogs chirp in a rhythm, fireflies blink to a quasi-beat, and elephants can dance. But these delightful displays of disco-like rhythm can't really answer that question without more study.

Enter Snowball. Snowball is a cockatoo that was brought to a bird rescue organization in 2007 that loves to dance to music. In fact, Snowball can dance to different tempos, rhythms, and songs. What started as a novelty turned into full-blown scientific studies and a new field of study. Scientists began observing how a variety of animals that are exposed to music behaved, and found that those that could vocally reproduce sounds they've never heard before (vocal learning) are more likely to be able to "entrain," that is respond to an external beat. These include parrots, elephants, and us.

The working hypothesis was that only vocal learners could entrain. But a rescued sea lion named Ronan clouded the picture. Researchers at UC-Santa Cruz used a thin evolutionary connection between walruses and seals (which can imitate speech) and their distant cousin, the sea lion (which can grunt or bark on command and at different speeds) to push the limits on the vocal learning theory. Ronan first learned to bob her head to simple metronome beats, but graduated to real music. EWF's "Boogie Wonderland" was a favorite, as well as Snowball's fave "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys.

Primates, previously thought to have no response to music, began to show they could groove as well. Though great apes are nonvocal learners, wild chimpanzees and bonobos have been observed drumming their hands and feet on their bodies. Recent controlled studies had bonobos drumming in sync with humans, but the jury is still out on whether that's a result of them becoming too humanized while in captivity.

So now the working theories started to get out of step and lose their groove. Do animals need vocal learning neural circuits in order to have rhythm? We know the body can move with a beat, but what about the brain? Scientists began looking back at neural studies about rhythm to see. In 2005, researchers found that certain neural circuits will oscillate in time with external rhythmic tones. Subsequent studies have found the same thing occurring in other animals, like monkeys and zebrafish. To take it further, and deeper into the brain, researchers found that neural circuits used for motion control also process auditory rhythms. And they seem to store patterns for us to reproduce later. Even when one is at rest, the motor circuits are active and anticipating when the next beat will be.

So why would the brain want to connect hearing and movement? Maybe it goes way back in evolution to being chased: the anticipation of the next footfall behind you or the swing of the predator's claw toward you could save your life. Rhythm is all through nature, from birds flying in formation to the highly coordinated hunts of wolves. But cockatoos, elephants, and humans that can vocalize may have a more highly developed response to music. It's been theorized that creating and responding to rhythm is mostly a social behavior. Human, parrots, and elephants are social species that use vocalization to communicate. And vocalizations are rhythmic in nature. Our ancestors, it's thought, sang and danced as social ritual before refining language. The next question in this research is, how do we motivate other animals enough to reveal their true musical abilities? Can a fish perform synchronized swimming? Can a horse clomp to the theme song from Mister Ed? Can my cat learn to dance? Well, probably. But he doesn't want to, because he's... you know...a cat.

The Sound of Progress

"These fellows blow their horns just to see the people jump, I believe."

Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, 1902

At the turn of last century, the automobile was poised to overtake the horse as the preferred mode of personal transportation. But there were detractors to the coming sea change. Much as we see driverless cars as a potential danger today, "horseless carriage" opponents saw the drivers themselves as dangerous.


Jar Fly Blues

One Giant Leap for M_-_//_ _nd

"It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it."
Astronaut Neil Armstrong commenting about the moon

Every time I hear the timeless phrase Neil Armstrong uttered while stepping on the moon, I can't help but remember the first time I heard it. It was 50 years ago at about 11:00 PM on July 20, 1969. I was eight-years-old and had fallen asleep waiting for them to get out of their strange looking space craft. Our family was vacationing in a cabin on a lake in southern Ohio, and Dad had hauled our portable black-and-white TV from home. We had a lot of trouble getting any TV stations out in the country on that little box. I seem to remember him fiddling with the rabbit ear antennas and positioning all of us at different places in the room like chess pieces so the picture wouldn't flutter.


Our Sped Up Life


"Radio is a hungry monster that eats very fast."
Tyler Joseph

Everything today seems to be sped up. We speed to work, we speed to pick up the kids, we speed home, we speed around the kitchen, we speed watch TV, we speed listen to podcasts, we speed, speed, speed...then we speed sleep so we can get up and do it all over again. And as if on cue, much of what we watch and listen to is also sped up.

For years, top 40 radio stations sped their turntables up so that songs played faster, albeit at a slightly higher pitch, to fit more tunes within an hour. They claimed it gave more energy to the station's sound, but profit was definitely the motivator because one or two more commercials could be fit into an hour. They also sped up those commercials for the same reason. Think this is ancient history? Nope. Some stations still do it with digital software that plays the songs faster without the pitch problem. Commercials are also still sped up, and pauses and silence gaps in talk shows are digitally removed so that they can - guess what? – fit more commercials in the hour. What's friendly for the station isn't always friendly to the artist. When the Go Go's released "We Got the Beat" in 1980, sales weren't very good in the UK. The band felt the low sales were partially due to the sped up tape for the 45 RPM release.

Television isn't immune to the speed wars either. Cable TV networks are notorious for editing and time compressing programs to jam into a time slot and – play more commercials. I remember first spotting this television trickery when watching a very long movie in just two hours with commercials. They really want to sell us more U.S. Mint Gold collector coins and life insurance.

The broadcasters aren't the only one thinking about squeezing media. The 78 RPM record, or "single," as the record company muckity-mucks now call it, was typically 3-minutes. So songwriters were encouraged to write nothing longer than 3-minutes, preferably 2. That same philosophy carried over to the 45 RPM record (which actually held about 4 1/2 minutes). You can hear this push for short singles in early Beatles records. "Love Me Do" debuted in 1962 and was 2:22 long. The moppy-haired head-shaker "She Loves You" a year later was even shorter, clocking in at 2:18.

One trick in getting song lengths down was to get to the chorus early. Sticking with the Beatles (and why not?), "Can't Buy Me Love," "Help," and "She Loves You" all start off with the chorus before getting into the first verse. Another composition method that may shorten a song is AABA, which harks back to the Tin Pan Alley days of simple phrase construction. The first two phrases (A & A) are similar, the third phrase (B) is different, then the last phrase (A) is similar to the first two. Songs with this structure are "Over the Rainbow" and "Blueberry Hill."

The time signature will sometimes shorten a song, though mostly unintentionally. Instead of the traditional four beats to a measure, 3/4 time has only three. The waltz, in 3/4 time, is a centuries-old method of getting people off their feet to dance. It (and its cousin 6/8 time) has been used in pop tunes such as "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)," What the World Needs Now Is Love," and "Take It to the Limit" by the Eagles. And we can't forget about 7/8 time, like the classic "Money" by Pink Floyd.

They say that what goes around comes around. Today, streaming services such as Spotify are influencing how songs are written based on the artist payout structure. Because physical sales (CDs and records) of music are way down, more and more money is made from streaming sales. Those payouts are based on listens, specifically if the listener hears at least 30 seconds. According to "Switched on Pop" host Charlie Harding, the average song length has decreased from 4:30 in the 1990s to 3:42 in 2019. Instead of long intros, artists are now introducing part of the chorus early in the song to get the hook in the listener's ear so they stay around longer. Albums or collections of songs also contain many more short songs than they used to. More songs listened to mean more money for the artist.

Surprised that artists are manipulating your buying habits? Well, the music business is just that – business. As Paul McCartney commented on the fortunes that "Can't Buy Me Love" brought to the Beatles, he said 'It should have been "Can Buy Me Love."'

Audio Letters to Home


"It was easier just to say it out on a tape than trying to write it because it will take a lot of writing paper in order to get it straight."
Private First Class Frank A. Kowalczyk
Long Binh Post, Vietnam, 1969

Back when it was expensive, or impossible, to call someone long distance, friends and family members would send messages on records and tapes to each other through the mail. Not only was it more affordable, it was a more personal way to stay in touch with each other and have some fun doing it. When I digitize some of these audio letters for customers, and feel like I'm transported back in time that a way that a letter can't take me.


Retro Rewind


"Nostalgia is not what it used to be."

Simone Signoret

Record stores all over America will be opening their doors on April 13th for National Record Store Day. But cassettes are sneaking in through the back. These portable petite plastic packs from the past now have their own Cassette Store Day each year in October, and they're winning over some fans that also shop for vinyl. In fact, annual sales of music cassettes were up 23% in 2018, and 70% since 2016. Artists and studios are rethinking this ancient format and not only re-releasing albums popular during cassette's halcyon days, but new music as well. What's with the retro rewind?


Shortwaves, Long Memories


"TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains."

Peggy Nooman

The recent presidential elections in Nigeria and Senegal stirred fond memories of my childhood. Specifically the "sounds" of Africa I remember growing up with. I haven't had the good fortune to go to Africa, but I've listened to it from afar. In the 1960s and 70s, radio was perhaps at its peak. AM radio stations played the hits, FM radio played the albums, and CB radios were in kitchens and cars. A lot of homes also had a shortwave radio. Today it's the internet that ties us all together. Back then, CBs connected us with our friends, AM and FM connected us with the country, and shortwave connected us with the world.


The Loudest Sound


My favorite saying is, 'If it's too loud, turn it up.'

Tori Amos

You often hear the phrase "The shot heard 'round the world," referring to the first shot fired of the American Revolution in Lexington, Massachusetts. Or for us baseball fans, Bobby Thompson's dramatic game-winning home run when the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers for a trip to the 1951 World Series. Both of these pale in comparison to the 1883 explosion of the Krakatoa volcano. Dubbed as the loudest sound in history, it was also the farthest traveled.


Calling All Cars


10:40 p.m. “I got about 2,000 college students coming from Walnut Street to 30th to Center City.”
10:46 p.m. “It’s endless, chief. Endless.”
11:11 p.m. “They’re on top of trash trucks. There is to be no one on top of trash trucks, guys.”
11:14 p.m. “We have multiple people on Broad Street swinging on light poles.”
11:20 p.m. “Climbing the trash trucks at 13th and Market.”
11:25 p.m. “I need to get the fire extinguisher out of my trunk. I got a fire on Broad Street just south of South. Someone lit a Christmas tree on fire.”

Philadelphia Police radio transcripts after the Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl

Do you remember the old movies from the 1930s when a radio in a police car would blare out "Calling all cars! Calling all cars!" The diligent policemen would zoom away in their car with the siren screaming. The dispatcher had no idea if the radio cars heard the frantic call because two-way radios were uncommon and expensive. So from the late 1920s until after World War II, most police departments relied on their cruisers having radio receivers only. Today, police use digital radio systems that carry data, video, and other information.


The Birth of Home Recording

"I bought a Dutch barge and turned it into a recording studio. My plan was to go to Paris and record rolling down the Seine."
Pete Townshend, The Who

What do you get when you combine a $150 microphone, a simple audio interface, a computer, audio recording and mixing software, and some musical talent? Maybe a hit record, even if it's made in an apartment living room in the middle of the night. The tools to produce quality music recordings are ridiculously good, affordable, and plentiful these days. It wasn't always like that. The Beatles, for instance, recorded the bulk of their music in London's EMI studios, a corporate juggernaut complete with tie-wearing audio engineers. In the U.S., record companies practically burned cash using session players such as Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, and Carol Kaye of Wrecking Crew fame in commercial studios. In the 70s, The Porcaro brothers, Steve Lukather, David Foster, and other household musical names rode the session player wave until synthesizers and affordable recording equipment came along.

I'm conflicted on the topic of recording music at home. The business part of me frets about studios losing out on billable hours. The musician part of me relishes creating art in a non-pressure environment. But the history of artists recording radio-ready songs in their humble abodes goes back further than you might imagine. Let's explore how affordable home music recording for the masses came to be, but also look back at the origins of this revolution in recording.

Blank recordable phonographic discs first appeared in the mid-1930s as a way to instantaneously record sounds to disc. Some of these early direct-to-disc recorders were somewhat portable, at least enough to be carted around in the trunk of a car. John Lomax used a 300 pound one to crisscross the south recording folk songs from such legends as Lead Belly for the Library of Congress. I discuss John and his son Alan in my article "Recording History" here. Over time, direct-to-disc cutters shrank to the size of a small suitcase, but the convenience and quality of the next big recording technology would overshadow it.

Enter magnetic tape recording. Technically, it was invented at the turn of the century, but its development was in Nazi Germany. In 1945, when the Allies were divvying up the spoils of war, the U.S. chose the Ampex Corporation to manufacture the first American-made reel-to-reel recorders. Artists like Bing Crosby and Les Paul pushed the technology to its limits while inventing new techniques and recording methods along the way. Working out of his home, Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded a string of hit songs using crude overdubbing and half-speed effects. Paul was also fortunate enough to have the first 8-track recorder, again inventing recording methods that would be used for decades. I also wrote in detail about Les Paul in my article "Recording History."

But these machines were beyond the budgets of ordinary people. For much of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, multi-track recorders were bulky, expensive, and hard to maintain. Recording tape for multitracks, usually 1" or 2", cost a small fortune. Consoles to record and mix on were also quite expensive. But things were changing. Microphones started to come down in price in the 60s, especially when Shure introduced the SM57. The "57" is now a staple for recorded and live music (and is still the preferred microphone for Presidential speeches).

As post war technological advancements matured, inventions such as the transistor and IC (integrated circuit) started to shrink electronics. Japan had rebuilt its factories and started to make major innovations in electronics. The Japanese company TEAC (later Tascam) almost single-handedly invented the home recording market in the early 1970s with affordable 4-track recorders that used miserly 1/4" tape (I used the TEAC 4-track in my very first recording experiences in the 70s). By the late 70s they had introduced an 8-track 1/2" recorder. In later years Tascam would sell other firsts, like the first 8-track reel-to-reel / mixer combo, the 4-track cassette recorder, the R-DAT, and the MiniDisc multitracker.

In the early 80s, another Japanese company, Fostex, rocked the world when they introduced an 8-track reel-to-reel recorder that used 1/4" tape. They later squeezed 16 tracks onto 1/2" tape and 24 tracks onto 1" tape – with SMPTE and MIDI sync to boot. The G24s was the ultimate affordable tool of small studios until digital recording came along.

In the 80s synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and sequencing software started to take over the music world. Much of the performance was done in the musician's home on the keyboard while a computer acted as a modern piano roll and recorded data from key presses and the sustain pedal. With simple mixers and affordable recorders, all that had to be added were live performers in a studio.

Some classic albums have been wholly or partially recorded and mixed in home studios with this early affordable technology. Tom Sholz cut most of the guitar and drum parts to Boston's first two albums in his basement on a Scully 12-track 1" machine. Tascam's 4-track cassette recorder was the center piece for Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Wu-Tang Clan's debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Iron and Wine's debut The Creek Drank the Cradle.

Today's cheap but effective music creation tools, such as GarageBand, are available to the masses like never before. So hold off angrily pounding on your neighbor's door in the middle of the night. Maybe that glass-rattling thumping bass might be the next Grammy-winning album being made.

Read about Tom Scholz creating the first two Boston albums in his home in Guitar World.

Mix Magazine talks with Scholz about the classic song "More Than a Feeling."

Tascam is the subject at the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording.

Fostex gives their fascinating history on their corporate web site.

Mix Magazine's behind-the-scenes look at session musicians during the heyday of the LA recording scene in the 1970s.

11th Hour Message

1-field op

"Hostilities will cease along the whole front from 11 November at 11 o'clock."
Marshal Foch, the French commander of the Allied forces via radio atop the Eiffel Tower.

This week marks 100 years since the end of the war to end all wars, known today as World War One. In 1918, on the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1,500 days of fighting came to an end. The armistice was agreed upon just six hours earlier in a railway car halfway between Paris and the Western Front. What's remarkable is the speed at which most troops were informed of the impending armistice. This war, like in so many other ways, forever changed the world of communication.


Video on Vinyl and Other Turntable Transgressions


"Hello from the children of Planet Earth"
From the gold records aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft

Vinyl is the format that won't die. It'll probably still be around after humans are extinct and our sun has gone supernova. Perhaps in eons, Voyager spacecraft with the golden records aboard will meet distant stars and future vinyl lovers. But in this eon, people will not stop pushing vinyl to its limits. Mad scientists and crazy artists like putting something other than music on it - or in it. More on that later.


As Seen on TV


"Treat the recording studio as a laboratory for conceptual thinking — rather than as a mere tool."
Brian Eno

When I was young in the...cough...60s and 70s, the only real glimpses I got inside a recording studio was through television and movies. There was a smattering of documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage of studios and radio stations. I was always straining to see the control board and tape machines, or marveling at the cavernous studio on the other side of the glass. It was absolutely riveting to peek inside them and see how a record was made. The 8-foot long mixing console was often shot through a fisheye lens. Long-haired musicians were sunk down into a couch smoking cigarettes (?) and listening to their masterpiece. And there were close-up shots of that big fat 2-inch tape rolling past the heads of the recorder.


How Hollywood Hears History


"The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What did Paul Revere's famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington sound like in April 1775? If you were there, you might recognize the approaching horse as a Narragansett Pacer mare. This once popular breed of horse, now extinct, was known for its ambling gait: a smooth riding four-beat gait that is faster than a walk, but slower than a canter or gallop. You might also notice the calm surroundings interrupted occasionally by crow calls, trees rustling in the wind, or the occasional farm dog barking at the stranger barreling down the rough dirt road. Just someone in a hurry.


Ghost Whispers


"I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."

Thomas Edison, 1920

What if you nonchalantly recorded something around your house, let's say a music practice session. Then when you played it back, you clearly hear someone whispering. You didn't hear it when you recorded it, so what was it? Many unfamiliar sounds throughout history can be attributed to nature, machinery, and even hoaxes. As our post-industrial society grows, so does the list of unexplained sounds, like trumpet sounds from the sky, humming cities, and ocean whistles. The proliferation of audio and video technology has generated its own tally of the strange. Specifically, weird voices that have been inadvertently and unknowingly captured. These recordings and transmissions sound eerie but have a very unsexy-sounding name: "Electronic Voice Phenomenon," or EVP.


A Myth-terious Thing

2015-March Myth-terious

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Arthur C. Clarke

To the average person, audio can be a mysterious "myth-terious" thing. Many people don't want to admit that they are intimidated by the technical side of it, and that makes sense. The closest most people get to manipulating audio is adjusting the volume on their stereo.

People probably have more experience manipulating visuals. We create a picture with a camera, crop it, make it brighter, sharper, more colorful. We may even shoot a video and trim the beginning, cut clips together, or add a title in a simple movie editing program. But manipulating audio can be challenging and mystifying. It's rare that someone has competent audio equipment or software in their homes. Even some musicians with home recording gear will admit they know just enough to kill feedback or get something recorded on disk.

Most people are pretty adept at listening, though. We air-jam the lead guitar in our favorite song, or marvel at the sound of jets flying through our living room during an action movie. We also know when something just doesn't sound right.

When making a video on our smart phone, the most common problem is poor audio. What's poor about it? Most people will say that there's too much noise. Usually this means there is too much ambient sound because the microphone is too far away from the subject. The microphone is on the camera/phone, not close to the source. Next time you watch the news, notice the little microphone(s) clipped to the lapel or tie of the anchor. On the rare occasion that one fails, we hear the sound coming from one of the other anchor's mic. It's far away and sounds amazingly like a smart phone recording!

If you've ever watched behind-the-scenes videos of movie-making, you've undoubtedly seen the person holding a very large hot dog on a very long stick over the actor. It's not Oscar Mayer, it's the boom operator. That is a highly directional microphone that will reduce ambient noise but pick up the actor's voice with a natural balance between voice and background.

So let's put on our turbans, uncover the old crystal ball, and dive into some audio myths that you might find surprising.

Audio Myths

Myth #1:
Recording good sound takes years of experience.
Not true. Simply reducing ambient noise may be enough to get clear sound. But getting the microphone as close to the subject or source is the first thing to do.

Myth #2:
Expensive microphones and recording equipment are needed to record good sound.
False. I recorded an NPR-like radio feature using a $100 microphone. It included multi-layered environmental sounds and an interview. I've found that the microphone on an iPhone 5 and above will record decent audio in a pinch. See Myth #1.

Myth #3:
Because a microphone is built into my video camera, it must record good audio.
Busted again. The microphone was put there by the marketing department. If you're twenty feet away from the subject and you're zoomed in for a tight head shot, where is the microphone? Twenty feet away on the camera! Just because your eyes see something close, the microphone won't. Get a mic up there!

Myth #4:
My ears hear the subject just fine, so the microphone will hear exactly what I do.
False-err-een-o. Your ears are connected to your brain, which selectively filters out what it doesn't want to hear. A microphone has no brain and is dumb. Here's a fun test you can do. Right now, one-at-a-time, listen to everything in the room and coming from outside. Do you hear a clock ticking? The furnace running? A siren? Yourself breathing? Did you hear those before I told you to listen? Your ear is just like that dumb old microphone - it heard everything. Your brain filtered out what wasn't important. When recording, choose the right microphone, get rid of the ambient noise, and get it close.

Myth #5:
It's cheaper if I shoot my video using the onboard microphone. I can always fix it later in edit.
Nada. In most cases, you'll be dissatisfied. In some cases, you'll be calling someone like me to try to fix the bad sound. It can cost at least as much or more to help bad audio than hiring an audio recordist with good equipment for a day. Plus, it will never really sound as good as it could with properly recorded audio. It's still twenty feet away.

Myth #6:
They put all those audio tools in my video editing program. That must mean I can get perfect audio using those tools.
Well...yes and no. If the audio was recorded properly, sometimes less is more. But they were really put there as a convenience (and by the marketing department again). Sometimes, all you need is a little equalization and dynamic control. But with the ever increasing formats and places we see video, the sound requirements can vary drastically. For instance, did you know there are different level and peak requirements (and metering devices) for television, radio, cinema, and DVD/BD? Plus, music, web, audiobooks, internal communications, and other formats have no standard level. Are you sure you have the right tools to confidently deliver to all those places?

Myth #7:
I just have voice-over and music, I'll just lower the music so I can hear the voice and it'll be good enough.
Not so fast, partner. If you want to lasso that voice and still let the music have impact, you have to start by herding the parts of the music that are gettin' in the way. By selectively reducing certain frequencies that are stampeding the voice, you can bring the music level back up. But it doesn't stop there. Using some ace-high dynamic control, you can have the music ducked anytime the voice gets lost under the music. Try them spurs on.

Myth #8:
Plug-ins, processors, etc must be used on recordings to make them sound good.
Oh, si faux. The holy grail for recording engineers is to record something that needs no manipulation whatsoever. If one chooses the right location, the right microphone(s), the right placement, and captures a truly perfect performance, then you're halfway there. The best recording is in the ear of the beholder. I was once told by a seasoned engineer that instead of using equalizers to boost or cut frequencies, they would chose microphones that had the sound they wanted. Magnifique.

Myth #9:
You must have expensive and complicated audio software to produce great sound.
Of course I'm going to debunk this one. Ones and zeros are ones and zeros. The input into a recorder or computer is the critical part here. It must be able to record the strongest signal with the least amount of noise and digital artifacts. Although there is low-/no-cost software that can degrade audio quality, most offer a wide range of acceptable editing and manipulation tools. The most common distinctions between low-/no-cost software and higher-cost ones are support, upgrade frequency, and more control over parameters. One of the most powerful programs out there - Audacity - is free.

Myth #10:
Digital is better than analog.
This is a loaded double-barrel shotgun question. It can only really be answered by the user. If one wants smooth, natural-sounding, and expanded dynamic range, then analog might be a good fit. If one wants cutting edge, fast workflow, and unlimited manipulation tools, then digital is probably a good fit. There are valid arguments for both sides. When cost-effective digital audio workstations (DAW) first came on the scene, they were integrated into existing analog rooms. After a decade or so, studios ditched most analog gear and fully embraced digital. Now, a lot of studios are re-integrating analog gear and techniques back into their workflow. The current ideal studio is a blend of digital and analog.

Wagner, Vader, and the Viking


"The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings."
Ralph Carpenter, Texas Tech Sports Information Director

Richard Wagner, the 19th century German composer, would have loved Star Wars. He may not have understood what a light saber or X-Wing fighter was, but he would get it - even with his eyes shut. That's because the Star Wars films are rich with composer John Williams' scores that employ a musical tool that Wagner himself was a master of: the leitmotif.


The Lasting Legacy of Bell Labs


"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? "
Albert Einstein

Bell Labs was born more than a hundred years ago out of the need to improve the nascent telephone. It grew into a pure research facility that made an astounding number of scientific discoveries, improved or invented new technologies, and even influenced art and music.


Retro Digital

Pasted Graphic

"Analog is more beautiful than digital, really, but we go for comfort."
Anton Corbijn

There's been a growing trend over the last several years to bring back the sound of classic analog gear, such as compressors and amps with vacuum tubes, ribbon microphones, and even reel-to-reel tape. Let's look at how old school charm is finding new love.


Hello From Mars


"The rockets came like drums, beating in the night."
From "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury

Walter Gripp is the last man on Mars. All the rockets to Earth have launched without him. One evening in a deserted town, he hears a phone ringing. This creepy scenario from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles has captured the fascination of science fiction fans for decades. The reader wonders, who could it be? The scientist wonders, what would it sound like? We're about to find out...maybe.


Time Travelers


"Shh! Listen! Someone's coming! I think -- I think it might be us!"
J. K. ROWLING, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Imagine if we could time travel without changing history. If we could go back 50 or 100 years would people view our technology as magic? If we were visited by time travelers from the future, would their technology be magic to us?


Pots & Pans: Cooking Up Stereo

Mar 17-Pots Pans

"Cooking is like music: you can tell when someone puts love into it.”
Taylor Hicks

The transition from mono to stereo music recordings in the late 1950s had its challenges. Find out how Rudy Van Gelder and other recording engineers worked out the details.


The Loudest Record!!!


"Every crowd has a silver lining.”
P.T. Barnum

126.4 I think that's what will be inside a little oval sticker that I'm going to put on my bumper. I see "26.2" bumper stickers that marathon runners proudly display. Colorado mountain climbers have "14er" stickers. A lot of dads are number "1." Then what's so special about 126.4? It used to be a number for Kings, but now it's a number for Cats.

Before I start to sound like a broken record, let me back up and tell this story from the beginning. Team Cornett wanted to raise the profile of UK Health Care and their close association with UK Athletics, so they came up with a plan to get the attention of a sports crowd. There's no better place for a hyped up crowd than Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington. With nearly 24,000 people, its been known to get really loud in there. It would be the perfect place to try and break the world record for the loudest crowd roar at an indoor sports event. And what basketball game would have the biggest and loudest crowd? A made-for-ESPN-TV marquee matchup: Kentucky versus Kansas.


Laser Listening


"The key to this plan is the giant laser. It was invented by the noted Cambridge physicist Dr. Parsons. Therefore, we shall call it the Alan Parsons Project."
Dr. Evil
Austin Powers

Here's something that will blow your mind and make you paranoid at the same time. Someone can listen to your conversations in your house or office from hundreds of feet away using light. The "light" is a "laser," and it's bounced off a window pane to detect sound vibrations. It's hard not to imagine Dr. Evil, played by Mike Meyers, air quoting "laser" when we mention that word. The theory was first proposed in the 1940s, but had to wait until lasers were actually invented in the 1960s to gain traction. By the 80s, the Cold War had us and the Soviets spying on each other using "lasers."


A Siren's Song


“Square in your ship's path are Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by;
woe to the innocent who hears that sound!”

by Homer in The Odyssey

I live on a busy street. My house sits roughly between three hospitals - all with helipads and emergency rooms. That's good for me if I have a really bad day, but my poor cat thinks wolves are after her whenever someone else is having a really bad day. I'm talking about the incessant sirens going up and down my street. And they seem to be getting louder – they penetrate my windows and brick walls with even more ferocity than ever before. It turns out that I'm not imagining this, because some emergency vehicles are now employing something called "low frequency system," or LFS. I call it "Loud F*@#$%^& Siren."

In addition to the regular high yelp of a siren, you may have noticed a lower yelping sound that seems to penetrate your car and go straight through your chest. That emergency vehicle has a secondary siren system that emits powerful omnidirectional bass tones from about 200-400 Hz. In this range, sound is "felt" more than heard - up to 200 feet away. These frequencies can penetrate auto glass and metal, wood and brick buildings, and human flesh and bones.


Is the Mix Tape Back in the MIx?


"I used to judge the quality of music by whether I could make a 90-minute cassette and not repeat any artists."

John Hughes

What? Another old audio format is making a comeback? Yessiree! If you want to be hip, then dust off your old Sony Walkman. But like me, you've probably dumped all your old cassettes along with your floppy disks and Trivial Pursuit. These days, my pocket can carry the same amount of music that drawers and drawers of cassettes can.


The Rebirth of AM Radio?


"I hate modern car radios. In my car, I don't even have a push-button radio. It's just got a dial and two knobs. Just AM."

Chris Isaak

Maybe you haven't noticed, but AM radio has pretty much sucked the last twenty years or so. Maybe you didn't notice because you weren't listening. A lot of people aren't, and the FCC is out to change that. The FCC? You bet – this isn't your father's FCC. We're so used to hearing "FCC" and "restrictions" in the same breath, that broadcasters were pleasantly surprised last October when the FCC announced an "AM Revitalization" initiative.


The Sonic Snuffer


"I throw more power into my voice, and now the flame is extinguished"

Physicist John Tyndall, 1857

There's been a recent breakthrough in fighting fires - using sound waves to extinguish flames. Since 1857, scientists have known that sound waves could put out a flame, but they weren't exactly sure why.


Analog Rules!


"As so much music is listened to via MP3 download, many will never experience the joy of analog playback, and for them, I feel sorry. They are missing out."

Henry Rollins

There's a growing trend in the music business - recording to reel-to-reel tape. Wait, I thought we got rid of that when we went digital. The truth is, it never went away. Much like the recent boom in sales of records and film, reel-to-reels are gaining new fans and bringing back old ones.


Broadcast and the Hearing Impaired

closed caption complete

"I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams."

Marlee Matlin

Did you know that more than 37 million Americans aged 18 or older have some kind of hearing loss? And 30 million Americans aged 12 or older have hearing loss in both ears? With a media-rich society, that makes listening to narration, dialog, and speech in general difficult for them. Before 1972, anyone hard of hearing had to watch television with the volume turned up.


Bong, Bong, Bong.


"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners."

Johnny Carson

Eighty-six years ago, three musical tones, "G-E-C," were played on a fledgling network of radio stations. What started as a technical cue for local stations, has become an instantly recognized trio of notes woven into the American identity.


Double-Naught Spies

Double-Naught news

"They number girl spies different. She's what you call a 36-23-36."

Max Baer, Jr. as "Jethro Bodine"

Double-Naught Spies

This month, the new James Bond spy movie Spectre will be released. It's the 24th film in the long-running franchise based on Ian Fleming's novels. "Hot Dog!" as Jethro Bodine would say. James Bond and all his gadgets were hatched from Fleming's experiences while serving in the British Navy Intelligence Division during World War Two.

Gathering intelligence during any war requires innovative and clandestine communication techniques, especially deep within the enemy lines. In the Revolutionary War, invisible ink and garments on a clothesline were tools to send secret messages. The Civil War saw women disguising themselves as nurses, slaves, and even soldiers to gather and smuggle information. During World War One, the human body itself became a vehicle for secret messages via invisible tattoos.


Podcasting Revisited

That Magic Sound


"Science is magic that works"

Kurt Vonnegut

That Magic Sound

Researcher Dr. Diana Deutsch at UC San Diego has been studying the psychology of sound since the mid-1960's. Her findings illustrate how people can hear musical tones wildly different from each other. These "illusions" can cause great disagreements between listeners, even highly trained musicians. And interestingly, one group of stereo illusions has right-handers and left-handers perceiving them differently.


Shhh! Be Quiet!!!

Shhh Be Quiet news

"If a tree falls in the forest, and hits a mime, does anyone care?"

Gary Larson

Shhh! Quiet!

Have you been hiking lately? Where'd you go? Red River Gorge? The Smokey Mountains? Yosemite? In the last 10 years, have you ever experienced a place devoid of all human sounds? Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-Award-winning recordist, claims there are less than a dozen places left in the continental U.S. that are "quiet." Hempton defines "quiet" as a natural environment that has no human-intrusion sounds for at least twenty minutes.


The Fancy Pants Announcer


"In radio, they say, nothing happens until the announcer says it happens."

Ernie Harwell
Legendary Detroit Tigers Announcer

There was a time when Americans who wanted to sound important and upper class spoke with a half-American, half-British accent. They call it mid-Atlantic, presumably because the accent lands somewhere in the middle of the ocean between our countries. It was dominant in movies, on radio, in theaters, and on early television. Today, it sounds pompous. Some early practitioners were Franklin Roosevelt, James Cagney, Orson Wells, and Katherine Hepburn. Some more contemporary holdouts were William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.


Voice Talk

voice talk news

"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."

Maya Angelou

Voice Talk

There was a recent study* that tried to understand how audio quality affected the perceived quality of the human voice. The researchers understood from the beginning that the results could be highly subjective, but they approached it using measurable methods. While tallying up the results, they were surprised by one finding they weren't attempting to measure. But it's something we in the advertising and production business already knew.


3D Sound on the Right Track


“Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”

Will Rogers

3D Audio on the Right Track

It's said that when an early motion picture was first shown to the public, women fainted and men ducked from an approaching train. The director made a bold new decision that would alter the course of filmmaking for the next century. Instead of just placing the camera in front of all the action like an audience watching a stage, the director moved the camera to a new position - within the action - to create perspective. There were more changes on the way. About a hundred years ago, the first color and 3D films were being created. In an Avant Garde era when artists were distorting reality, most filmmakers were trying to recreate reality and immerse the viewers into it.

Realistic sound is no exception. In fact, stereo sound was first demonstrated in 1881, and multiple speaker playback in the early 1930's. These early attempts at locating sounds for the listener were impractical though, and required expensive and ungainly equipment. By the late 1950's, consumers could finally experience stereo with LPs and tapes. But until home theater systems became popular, most had to go to a place like a theater or theme park to experience anything beyond stereo sound.

Since digital audio and video have pretty much taken over the world, we've seen a rapid growth of new technologies. Virtual reality is one of those, like the Oculus Rift, a VR headset for the masses. This is a visual VR device. But what's lacking is auditory VR.

Enter the researchers at Microsoft. They've created a way to fool a listener into thinking sounds are coming from a specific location using ordinary headphones. To make it work, the listener's head and shoulders are scanned into 3D software, which then builds a custom filter. Add motion sensors and a camera to track the listener's position, and the fun begins. Sounds can seem to be coming from objects or areas in a room. Imagine making that stuffed Teddy bear in the corner of your child's room actually talk. That model hot rod on the shelf could rev its engine. The uses seem endless.

It's obvious that this new device will be used as a companion to a visual VR headset. But there could be many more uses. Theme park attractions could be revolutionized by creating more realistic environments while eliminating costly sound systems. The movie industry could enhance the viewer's experience. Music artists could create the ultimate mix, with that lead guitarist standing next to the coffee table.

I think the largest user of this technology will be the advertising industry. Imagine walking down the street with your headphones listening to some music when a voice from your left whispers, "Pssst! Hey buddy, wanna buy a watch?" You turn and see the sparkling Bulova timepiece in the window of the jewelry store.

Train photo courtesy Simon Pielow

Did You Know?

  • In Paris in 1881, Clément Ader demonstrated the first two-channel sound utilizing telephone transmitters. As part of an exhibition, the Paris Opera performances were heard at a remote location by listeners wearing headphones. Scientific American immediately picked up on the aural spaciousness compared to a single receiver.
  • Adre's process was later marketed in France for over 40 years as the Théâtrophone. These coin-operated devices were popular in hotels, cafés, and clubs. There were also many homes that had the Théâtrophone by subscription.
  • Similar services were the Electrophone in England and the Telefon Hírmondó in Budapest. In the U.S., there were only one-time experiments.
  • The Théâtrophone service also included short news readings, making it a prototype to the telephone newspaper as well as the first example of electronic broadcasting.
  • The popularity of radio and the phonograph killed the Théâtrophone by 1932.

Tech Notes

One of the fundamentals of recording and mixing is deciding what kind of spatial experience the listener will have. Creating a realistic one is difficult. If accuracy is not adhered to strictly, the result is a false space. An example of a near realistic auditory recording and playback is to place two microphones closely together in front of a performance. During playback, the listener is positioned in front of two loudspeakers at about the same angle and distance as the microphone were placed. This is a fairly pleasing experience, but isn't 100% accurate because everyone's playback system and environment is different.

A false spatial method is called "pan-pot" stereo. Mono or stereo tracks are "panned" in the mix away from center. An example might be a cowbell panned slightly to one side ('More cowbell!"). Most contemporary pop and rock songs are constructed this way because the tracks were built one performer at a time.

Recording engineer and producer Bruce Swedien (who recorded and mixed the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson's Thriller) likes to pre-plan his stereo mix. If Swedien wanted that cowbell on the left side of the mix, he would record it in stereo with the performer standing to the left. In the analog tape days this required careful planning because engineers were limited to a finite number of tracks. Most recorders had 16 or 24 tracks. If all instruments are recorded separately in stereo, then that limited the tracks to 8 or 12.

Most stereo recordings are intended to be heard on speakers. Once the listener uses headphones, the aural space changes dramatically. Instead of left and right sounds coming from forward of the listener (from the speakers), they are now coming from extreme left or right. Anything that was intended for the front middle (like the vocalist or lead guitar), is now coming from inside the head, right in the middle. It's a hyper-real experience, and immediately going back to front speakers elicits a lifeless experience.

There is one recording technique that requires listening only on headphones. This ultimate 2-channel spatial experience is called binaural recording. Two microphones are placed either in a mannequin head with false ears, or over the recordist's ears. Whatever the recordist hears is correctly translated to the listener. A common use for binaural recordings is an audio tour. How about a walk through Chinatown on a busy Monday morning? Or a walk through a submarine as she makes her dive to 300 feet. The listener is instantly transported to the locale.

I did this on a project that required me to be in a crowd at a sporting event. I wore headphones that had small microphones (lavalieres) clipped on the outside. To the unsuspecting person, I was just someone listening to some beats. To the listener, I was their portal to the game.

Some resources to listen to binaural recordings (be sure to use your headphones):

A studio music performance from the videographer's perspective

Binaural mixes on Sound Cloud

Sounds of Bach

Learn more about binaural recording

Neil Kesterson

Get in the Groove!

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The new generation is discovering what the old generation stopped loving - LPs. LP sales are the highs they’ve been in 22 years. Records aren’t just for hipsters anymore, everyone, including the older generation that gave them up, are groovin’ to them.


The Color of Sound

Sound Color
“Within You Without You,” The Beatles

How would you describe a sound to someone without using descriptors that are unique to sound, like: loud, bassy, shrill, whining, atonal, or noisy?

Not a problem, because we most often describe a sonic experience with words related to our other senses: sharp, warm, angular, raspy, piercing, even, warbling, soft, smooth, or flat.


We Listen

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It's often assumed that someone with a visual impairment, such as blindness, has better hearing. While this person may collect more audible information than most of us, there is no physical advantage over someone with sight. That information is collected by the brain. That person has trained themselves to rely more on the remaining senses.

Did you ever discover a new fashion, car, or word, only to start noticing it over and over? "How did I not see that before? It was right in front of me all the time." It's the same with your ears. We audio engineers always talk about the psycho acoustics of the brain and it's ability to filter out unneeded sounds. Our ears hear our heart beat, the blood rush through the ear canals, and other body sounds, only to have them "psycho acoustically" removed by our brain. The same goes for straining to hear someone talk to you in a noisy room. You "psycho acoustically" filter out the other noise to only hear your friend.

Microphones are dumb. They have no brains. That wasn't an insult, but a fact. A microphone hears everything around it and can't filter out sounds. The housing is manipulated to make it more directional, but it still hears everything. That's where an audio engineer comes in. Our job is to pay attention to all the sounds that will cause problems later.

Most audio engineers are trained to hear offensive noises from the beginning. Hear that buzz? That air conditioning? That plane overhead? We first hear the sound isolated one-at-a-time so we will be able to hear it when it's buried under other sounds. When I was a music major, I became aware of this technique because I was able to pick out individual instruments during performances. I had been trained on trombone, but I could distinctly hear a clarinet, flute, saxophone, etc. when the whole band was playing, all because I was familiar with each instrument's sound.

There's another very important aspect of being an audio engineer. And that is to listen to what the client is saying. Sometimes the message is cluttered, unclear, or lacking in detail. But it is our job to understand what the creative goal is. Some people have difficulty expressing ideas in technical terms, but that's okay. We're not all nerds that only understand jargon (we just speak to each other that way). In fact, an emotive description is often the best way to communicate an idea.

Our motto "We Listen" embraces many ideas - technical, creative, inspirational, and personal. You should always know that we listen.

Did You Know?

  • Fish do not have ears, but they can hear pressure changes through ridges on their body.
  • The ear’s malleus, incus and stapes (otherwise known as the hammer, anvil and stirrup) are the smallest bones in the human body. All three together could fit together on a penny.
  • The ear continues to hear sounds, even while you sleep.
  • Sound travels at the speed of 1,130 feet per second, or 770 miles per hour.
  • Dogs can hear much higher frequencies than humans.
  • Ears not only help you hear, but also aid in balance.
  • Snakes hear through the jaw bone and through a traditional inner ear. In essence, snakes have two distinct hearing mechanisms, which helps them hear and catch prey.
  • Sitting in front of the speakers at a rock concert can expose you to 120 decibels, which will begin to damage hearing in only 7 1/2 minutes.
  • Thirty-seven percent of children with only minimal hearing loss fail at least one grade.
  • Male mosquitoes hear with thousands of tiny hairs growing on their antennae.

​(The American Academy of Audiology, www.turnittotheleft.com)

Dynamix Tech Notes

With the exception of one or two particular microphones, all microphones are omni-directional. That is, they pick up sounds from all directions. A microphone that is uni-directional, like a shotgun or vocal mic, is one that has its housing modified. The diaphragm (the capsule that picks up the sound and turns it into electrical energy) can be surrounded by air vent slots in a tube to redirect sounds from the sides. For example, a sound from the left hits the left side of the tube that has the slots in it. Sounds are really waves of air, but they behave like ripples in water and spiral. When that sound from the left enters into the air vent from the left, it is spiraling in one direction. The remaining part of the sound wave from the left that isn't captured by the air vents enters the vent slots on the right side of the tube. Because these came in from the opposite direction, they are spiraling in the opposite direction. The two oppositely spiraling sound waves collide and cancel each other out. Any sound that came through the end of the tube (the front) has an open expressway to the capsule at the bottom.

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Neil Kesterson

Heads, Tail, Grooves, and Needles

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Most of you reading this know us at Dynamix for creating new sounds with new technology. But did you know we also like to resurrect old sounds? Just twenty years ago, magnetic tapes and records were standard formats we worked with everyday. Now, they're just "antiques" and items taking up space in a closet. But many people are discovering (or re-discovering) analog, and they want it in digital form. For many years, we have been helping people resurrect old recordings by transferring their tapes and records to CD. Many of these analog recordings are of family, but others are important historical archives.


Book Knowledge

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Audio books, or what used to be called "books-on-tape," are gaining in popularity now that listeners can easily download them to their portable listening device. In the old days, you had to fumble with a box of tapes or CDs. Now, thanks to software like iTunes, you put a whole library in your pocket. The ease of getting an audio book is exponentially easier with on-line stores like iTunes, Amazon, and Audible. Just like the print market, there's an audio book for just about anything. If you want a book for self-help, do-it-yourself, travel, humor, history, etc., it's out there. And the line between audio books and audio programs is dissolving.


Tools of the Trade

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Okay, this is not a gear-geek column (but you fellow geeks can find a little tech talk in the next section "Dynamix Tech Notes"). But rather, a primer on why and how we make our choices for certain audio production equipment. As a part-time educator, I'm often asked by budding filmmakers, "What kind of equipment should I buy?" It's often paired with "How much will it cost?" It's a valid question.


Turn it Down!

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The volume is getting turned down on television commercials. What does that mean for you, the producer or advertiser? Well, you can still scream all you want, but you just won't be louder than the latest installment of a Fast and Furious movie.


BOOM Go the Fireworks!

Independence Day reminds me about fireworks. Which reminds me of explosions. Which remind me of sound effects. I'm not necessarily thinking of sound effects when I'm watching fireworks, because I'm usually in the moment. But we've all experienced that anticipation of waiting for the next explosion when we see a faint streak of light climb up to the heavens and hear a little bit of the sizzle from the propulsion. A momentary silence...and then BOOM! Ooooh! Aaaah! Laughter, applause. Read More...

And Down the Stretch They Come!

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A jam-packed field. Each running neck-and-neck trying to lead the pack. The whole mass moving toward the finish line with breathtaking speed. Finally it ends, but it's too close to call!!!

No, it's not the Kentucky Derby. It's an overcrowded commercial with too much information that's been crammed into 30 seconds. Sound familiar? We all want to get our message across, but we often say too much. I'm guilty of it (as many of my friends would attest). Read More...



With the recent college basketball championships engulfing our March, it's easy to see what it takes to make a winner: teamwork. Okay, I know it sounds cliché, but it's the same in production. If a coach only relies on one player, then the team will eventually fail. Everyone sees the other players just standing around and "phoning it in." What would you think? "Good player, but this team could be so much more." What about "Good video, but it could be so much more."


Bending Music

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Most productions that go through our studios at Dynamix have some kind of music. It can be a jingle, custom, or library ("needledrop") music. A jingle can be great for branding your client over the long term. But, it's usually the most expensive item in your production budget, sometimes the only item. If you're producing a film, custom music can give cohesiveness to the soundtrack, but can also be expensive - sometimes as much as 15% of your total budget. That's why many projects that have a quick turnaround or tight budget lean towards using library music.


Replacing Dialog in Videos

Steve Zahn-Disney_IMG_1462

Replacing dialog in video and film has come a long way since Clint Eastwood had to dub dialog for his spaghetti westerns. Whether it's noise in the original track, a changed or new line, or even a different performance, replacing dialog on programs and films is commonplace today. Read More...

Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War

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Being in the "Horse Capital of the World," we surely have enough experience to know that a horse sounds much like it did 150 years ago. However, back then a horse's role was very different than today. In a new documentary, "Unsung Hero: The Horse in the Civil War," produced by Witnessing History, LLC for HRTV (Horse Racing TV Network), the role of the horse in the American Civil War is explored in-depth with rarely-seen photographs, documents and artwork. To a sound designer's delight, there are simulated battle scenes, troop movements, and other war action.


Dynamix Connect With the World

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One often overlooked service that Dynamix Productions provides on a regular basis is ISDN (see below for a more detailed explanation). It's a real-time digital audio connection that allows two or more studios to deliver near CD audio quality to each other simultaneously. We regularly connect with other studios around the world for voice-over sessions.